Week 451: From ‘Hamlet’. by William Shakespeare

This may brand me forever as a literary Philistine, but I confess that I have never been able to work up much enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s comedies, and I can’t help wondering how much we would still be bothering with them were it not for the tragedies, histories and sonnets. I remember a conversation with a classmate at school as we struggled to see the point of ‘Twelfth Night’, mysteriously chosen as a set text suitable for thirteen-year olds.

‘Dave, why are we reading this tosh?’
‘Because the guy wrote “Hamlet”.’
‘Then why aren’t we reading f—–g “Hamlet”?’

Which were my sentiments exactly. So it is necessary to remind myself from time to time of certain things, and it doesn’t take long: a passage like this from Act 1, Scene 1 is enough to do the job. Come back, William, all is forgiven.


It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.


So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:
Break we our watch up; and by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.

The cock, the ‘bird of dawning’, has long figured in folklore as symbolizing the powers of light. Tolkien readers will remember how the crowing of a cock marks the arrival of the Rohirrim and the start of the great battle of the Pelennor Fields: ‘Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of of war and wizardry, welcoming only the morning…’.

Finally, it’s a very brave man or a very self-deluded one who will offer one of his own poems as an accompaniment to Shakespeare’s, but just in case there should be any doubt that when it comes to the serious stuff I am as bardolatrous as the next man, I append my own Hamlet-inspired piece….

First Night

I like to think of when your words were new
And came like scalding lava, before they cooled
Into a long familiar fantastic
Or to try, like you, always another image,
Of that long summer when our language bloomed
And you went stumbling like a drunken bee
From wayside herb to blossom-laden bough –
Never such harvest, nor such honeycomb.

But most I like to think of that first night,
The crowd spilling out, to walk by the starlit river
Full of it all: the ghost, the poor drowned girl,
The sword-fight at the end, and quoting lines
That smouldered on, like coals in thatch: and then
That bit about the undiscover’d country,
How did it go, To be or not to be?
Neat, anyway; you’ve got to give him that.

David Sutton

Week 410: The Death of Falstaff, by William Shakespeare

I sometimes wonder how much Shakespeare really intended Falstaff. One imagines it all starting with a ‘note to self: how about comic fat character to give the groundlings a laugh?’, and then Falstaff turns up, marches in, and takes over the place. I first met this larger-than-life character at a fairly young age and found him very entertaining but a bit confusing. I could not help comparing him with English literature’s other great subversive antihero, William Brown, who like Falstaff had a band of faithful acolytes, a fine line in rhetorical self-justification and a sturdy disdain for the values and conventions of his time. I’m afraid that morally the comparison did Falsaff no favours. William might have had his faults, but he was essentially honourable, and you wouldn’t have caught him going round stabbing corpses and trying to take the credit for killing them. Still, I felt keenly the increasing pathos of the old rogue’s rejection by the cold-hearted Prince Hal, and was glad that Shakespeare, a third of the way through ‘Henry IV Part 2’, at least gave him a fine sendoff, in a scene that manages to be both funny – the Hostess trying to reassure the dying Knight that he need not to be thinking about God just yet – and yet do justice to the mystery and solemnity of death.


London. Before a tavern.

Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and Boy


Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.


Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!


Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

William Shakespeare

Week 117: From ‘King Lear’, Act V, Scene 3, by William Shakespeare

I once attended an open-air performance of ‘King Lear’, and very good it was too on a darkening summer evening against a backdrop of ruins. The only problem was that this being a small company there was some doubling up of roles, and the same female actor played both Cordelia and the Fool. This clearly confused two old ladies sitting in front of me, who, going along with the Shakespearean convention that any change of costume serves as an impenetrable disguise, not unnaturally assumed that the Fool actually was Cordelia, come back to keep an eye on her old dad just as Kent had come back in disguise to serve his master and Edgar to assist Gloucester. I don’t think this is quite what Shakespeare intended – let’s face it, most ideas about Shakespeare are probably not what Shakespeare intended – but there is certainly a case to be made for the Fool as Cordelia’s alter ego, both radiating the same dangerous innocence. It seemed particularly appropriate that these final lines of reconciliation between Lear and his daughter should have coincided with the last light from the west, before the play ended in death and darkness.

  • Edmund. Some officers take them away. Good guard
    Until their greater pleasures first be known
    That are to censure them.
  • Cordelia. We are not the first
    Who with best meaning have incurr’d the worst.
    For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
    Myself could else outfrown false Fortune’s frown.
    Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?
  • Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
    We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
    When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
    And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
    And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
    At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
    Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too
    Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out
    And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
    As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
    In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
    That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

Week 79: From ‘Troilus and Cressida’, by William Shakespeare

I believe that others before me may have noted that a certain gentleman from Stratford was a pretty good poet, so I hardly need to add my own halfpennyworth except to comment on how, even in the lesser known plays, that infinitely flexible speaking voice of his can take on a quality of haunting immediacy. I love how Cressida’s magnificently over-the-top protestations are undercut by the proleptic irony of her faithlessness to be: was anyone ever better at doing the grand rhetorical style while at the same time subtly undermining it?

Cressida: If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy,
And blind oblivion swallow’d cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing – yet let memory
From false to false, among false maids in love,
Upbraid my falsehood: when th’ have said ‘As false
As air, as water, wind, or sandy earth,
As fox to lamb, or wolf to heifer’s calf,
Pard to the hind, or stepdame to her son’
– Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
‘As false as Cressid.’